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Opportunism in Practice


3. Vollmar’s Tactics.

How can anyone clinging to such trash

keep any hope in his head?

With greedy hands he digs for treasure,

and is happy when he finds earthworms!

Goethe, Faust, Pt. I

The fact that opportunism is so muddle-headed intellectually ensures that its manifestations are most diverse. As far as it has found expression within German social democracy so far, however, we can distinguish four main lines around which more or less similar views are grouped.

In the first instance, there is what I call statesmanship á la [Georg von] Vollmar. By this I mean the art of political and parliamentary arrangements, which certainly should not be underestimated. Above all, this includes a sharp eye for the current interactions between the parliamentary parties and the politics of the government. Such a statesmanlike view is certainly useful to every politician, including social democrats. But social democracy needs more. For, as a social revolutionary party, the question of development is more important than is the current balance between the political parties. The basis of all our work, after all, is economic development, which revolutionises social stratification, alters the balance of power between the political parties, reshapes government policy and must bring us to power. Social democracy reckons with factors of which the bourgeois statesman is not even aware. On the other hand, while it would certainly be foolish to ignore the special interests of the various strata of the bourgeoisie, their struggles among themselves and with the government, and to lump them all together indiscriminately as the “reactionary mass”, we have nevertheless seen that each time the proletariat has made a great political advance, the bourgeoisie and the government have found themselves united in the struggle against the working class. The universal character of the proletarian class struggle, which is directed against the whole social order and its form of government, means that, on the opposite side too, for all the tensions between them, the common class interests of the possessing classes must break through. The bourgeois democracy’s betrayal of the proletariat is no accident; it is a law. First, this democratic bourgeoisie, misjudging class antagonisms, indulges in the illusion of being able to represent the interests of the workers as well as those “all other layers of the population.” And second, when class antagonisms - which are always something spontaneous, sudden, and unexpected to the bourgeois ideologues - break through, they have no choice but either to become unfaithful to their own class or to abandon the interests of the proletariat.

The statesman within social democracy is inclined to overestimate the importance of the existing parliamentary constellation and to disregard the major laws of development. He places far too much emphasis on the government’s intentions, as well as those of the parties and their various promises. He generally overestimates the importance of the government (not to be confused with governmental power [Regierungsgewalt] itself) and the parliamentary majority, and likes to overlook the fact that the governmental power (i.e. the government, parliament and the entire political, organisation of the country, including the military) is in the hands of the ruling capitalist class. He places far too much emphasis on public opinion, which influences the parliament and the government, and far too little on those interests arising from the structure of society itself, which quickly and thoroughly change public opinion when the shallow waters of daily politics are suddenly thrown into wild turmoil by the great social undercurrents. And so, time and time again, our statesman must find that his political combinations, however finely woven, are thrown overboard by the collision of class antagonisms that is fully expected by those above. First with despondence, and then with bitterness, he seeks the cause of his failures in the ill-considered tactics of others, in the impetuousness with which the masses advance. He thus tries to contain the social-revolutionary movement, to steer it into calmer waters. He preaches prudence and moderation. He believes that this will ensure development and lead the proletariat to its goal in small stages, from success to success. This can only happen if we do not rush ahead, if we only take into account the given circumstances and only set ourselves “attainable goals”. He urges self-restraint, demands renunciation. And above all he practices self-renunciation. In his longing for “positive” achievements, frightened by failures, he increasingly limits his demands in order to adapt himself to the present political constellation, to the present parliamentary majority. He imposes more and more “restraint” on the proletariat, he presents more and more concessions to the bourgeois parties, and in doing so he works himself into an ever greater rage against those storming forward in a revolutionary manner, who disturb his praiseworthy actions.

If he comes under pressure from theoretical reasoning, then he turns against theory in general. He does not want to be a slave to the principle, to scientific knowledge. Does not science change too? So, he says, let’s use the science that pleases us, and if we cannot currently find a suitable one on the market, then we wait until another comes along.

In his opinion, you do not only get rid of scientific arguments by refuting them, but also by circumventing them, overlooking them – in short, ignoring them – and by not allowing yourself to be unsettled by them. What does it mean for our statesman if he is found guilty of false reasoning, of an ignorance of the facts, of contradicting himself, or of being inconsistent? Nothing lasts forever, everything is forgotten, and the public has a short memory. Even more, the public always respects someone who does not allow himself to be unsettled. For example, all and sundry might realise that, in a certain case, our wise statesman has been very badly mauled by an evil critic, who may even be a God-knows-where-from someone who does not even wear spurs and epaulettes, but if our statesman keeps a clear gaze and a calm forehead, then everyone will believe that the statesman must know more than the rest of them, which gives him a feeling of superiority, since he keeps a straight face in a situation where everyone would feel aggrieved. If this happens repeatedly, then the wise statesman needs only occasionally to throw some wise sayings into the crowd, such as, for example, that everything has its time, that the hollow babblers are not actually saying anything after all, that endless discussions are not to his taste, that the development of things will influence ideas soon enough, and so forth, and soon it will be said in all the market squares: “The wise statesman knows something that all the rest of us do not, but he is silent because he is wisely waiting for the opportunity to speak. But when that opportunity arises, then – yes, then he will!” Many, on the other hand, marvel at the statesman’s cold-heartedness, without thinking about why. To them, he is simply a Blue Wonder, like so many things in the world: Ali, the invulnerable Arab, whose bloodless cheeks you can pull a knitting needle through – the man with the stone head, on whose skull the hardest granite can be smashed to bits, and so on.

The characteristics of a tactic can never be identical to the characteristics of an individual. Things are more consistent than people. I ask the readers to keep an eye on this corrective. On the other hand, I claim the right to draw the most far-reaching and unvarnished consequences from every political action, from every opinion expressed publicly within the party.

The fundamental political error that Vollmar made already in his Eldorado speeches of 1891[a] was that he placed far too much emphasis on the government having changed its tactics in dealing with the Social Democrats. The fact that he believed the government had far more good will than it did, that he did not foresee the kaleidoscopic change in colour represented by the “new course” [in 1890 following the fall of the Anti-Socialist Laws —BL] and the large and small “revolution bills”,[b] was the least of it. The main issue was that he considered a change in the government’s behaviour to be sufficiently significant to revise all of the party’s tactics. For him, it boils down to this: if the government is reactionary, we are revolutionary; if the government is acceptable, we are tractable. But the proletariat is revolutionary not because it is politically persecuted, but the other way round. Vollmar forgot that, as far the proletariat is concerned, the government of the capitalist state can never, even with the best will in the world, be anything but a tool in the hands of the capitalist class. That social democracy is revolutionary depends neither on the government nor on us: it is the outcome of the class struggle within capitalist society. German Social Democracy was rightly proud of the fact that it had not allowed itself to be forced to the left or to the right by the Anti-Socialist Law [1878-1890]; why should the fall of that law now change party tactics? Again, a peculiar connection immediately meets the eye: it is precisely those who, when the Anti-Socialist Law was introduced, tried to push the party to the extreme left that attempted to push it to the extreme right after its fall. The mistake in both cases was to overestimate the influence of government policy on the proletarian class struggle. The social revolutionary movement forges its own path, regardless of the government’s hatred or goodwill.

Vollmar thus believed that with the fall of the Socialist Law an era of political and social-reform concessions on the part of the government had begun. He therefore hastened to clarify our immediate demands in the legislative field and urged the party to demonstrate its political goodwill to the government in order to make its work easier. Now, we can differ in our judgment of the value of of German socio-political legislation over the last ten years, but... there is no doubt that the 1890s cannot bear comparison with the 1880s in this respect. Such cardinal measures as the implementation of the factory law and the workers’ compensation scheme were no longer introduced. Precisely the opposite of what Vollmar expected thus emerged: the government’s socio-political zeal did not increase, but declined, until such a point that it openly proclaimed the principle that there should be a pause in social policy.

How this relates to the question of whether to opt for social revolutionary or opportunist tactics will be discussed elsewhere, but for the time being I note that the state’s most intense period of socio-political activity came during the most intense period of “social revolutionary” agitation.

Vollmar was thus most thoroughly deceived by his statesmanly gaze. Let us see how this affected the further development of his tactics. Two of the five demands he outlined in 1891 were especially noteworthy: the achievement of a legally guaranteed normal working day and the “elimination of food tariffs”. For him, these were things that could be realised immediately and therefore required the practical politician’s full attention. It was certainly necessary to work in general towards a further extension of worker-protection, however: “Above all, all efforts must be directed to the attainment of a legal working day – this core and pivotal point of all devices to protect the workers.” With regard to the elimination of food tariffs, he said: “All I want to say is that our fight against the system of artificial food inflation must never falter”. But you will search in vain in Vollmar’s activities from 1891 for traces of a concentration of “all efforts” on the attainment of the normal working day. On the contrary, the more his state-minded eye showed him that the government and the parties still considered such a measure inopportune for the time being, the more the agitation for the normal working day receded for him from the foreground into the background vis-à-vis those smallest of socio-political laws to which he attributed a subordinate importance in 1891.

And Vollmar also allowed a long pause in his fight for the elimination of food duties, the struggle which “should never falter”. It was only the most recent events that shook him up again, and there he called for a fight against the “new tariffs”, i.e. no longer for the elimination of food tariffs, but against their increase. Until then, however, he personally ignored the opportunities for agitation against the food tariffs presented by the peasants’ association. He remained silent when the peasant union requested an increase in grain duties. He was silent, for he had already drawn up a statesmanlike plan to convert the peasants to social democracy through showing it its goodwill, just as he wanted to make the government a socially reformist one by making concessions. This was only part of a whole package of the peasant agitation, the glories of which I shall also present in detail, and with loving care, elsewhere. Its guiding point was this: Since the German peasantry, as presently constituted, is not amenable to the socialist program of the proletariat, we want to cobble together a socialist program in line with this peasantry. Here his statesmanship, which had begun with an initially quite noncommittal openness [Entgegenkommen] to the government – “without losing sight of the final goal” – already leads to concessions in principle. Since Vollmar now covered the peasants’ union to the right, opposite the center, looking from the left, he could not have done a better job of promoting the business of this political hybrid. This activity was rewarded by the Reichstag elections of 1898, which showed a considerable increase in the number of votes for the association and an absolute decrease in the number of social democratic votes in the rural constituencies of Bavaria. Once again a statesmanlike action was shattered by class antagonisms.

Vollmar’s statesmanlike arrangements on the Bavarian electoral issue ended equally successfully. The Bavarian electoral system is such that, if the first ballot produces an inconclusive outcome, electoral alliances are essential to achieve a result. In such cases, the Centre and the National Liberals have hitherto always joined forces to outvote the Social Democrats. But since the National Liberals have repeatedly proved to be dishonest partners in dividing up the spoils, the incensed Centre turned to the Social Democrats in the last elections. As a result, the liberals were badly beaten and felt the disadvantages of the electoral system first-hand. But the Centre’s joy was not unmitigated either, for by joining forces with the Social Democracy it tore a huge hole in the dense web of lies and slander with which it had tried to keep the masses away from Social Democracy. This necessarily made things quite unpleasant, especially for the Catholic workers’ associations. On the other hand, the Centre was bitterly reproached by the Catholic bourgeoisie and by Catholic sanctimoniousness. To justify this move, the party cited the electoral system. So it came about that after the elections all the parties were engaged in bitter complaints about the existing electoral law. For us, the main task was to exploit the favourable situation in an agitational way. Since the whole world was talking about changing the electoral law, we had to start a mass movement in favour of a democratic electoral law through meetings, leaflets, and so on. We had to submit the most far-reaching motions possible to the state parliament in order to bring the special interests of the individual parties to the fore. We had to press for a speedy resolution of the suffrage issue and force the government and the parties to do so by all political means available to us, if necessary by obstruction. And even if we had hardly been able to push through our overall demand, under these circumstances we could most likely count on the ruling parties granting at least something to cut off the head of our agitation, and in any case the effect of the agitation would have worked in our favour.

But Vollmar thought differently. A statesmanlike arrangement immediately formed in his mind. So he began the campaign by giving a solemn speech in the state parliament that had a benevolent admonishing tone. He showed the parties how foolishly they had acted until now by turning their backs on the Social Democratic demand for a change in the electoral law. He also showed them how they had misjudged Social Democracy in general. “So, gentlemen, you must simply make an effort to understand us.” He himself made every effort to place himself in the position of the bourgeois parties. He proved to them that, out of consideration for their own interests and for social-democratic agitation, they must change the electoral law. He threatened to make this agitation. But this was merely a threat. By refraining from the agitation he wanted to show the Social Democrats’ good will: “Now I will come to the real subject, namely, electoral reform, with a few more remarks. As I said, I will not speak much about it, because the matter has finally been set in motion, by us in the first place. The motion is to go to a committee and we will be able to talk about the matter there. For us Social Democrats, it is here, as on all occasions – and contrary to the opinion of some of you – by no means merely a matter of agitation. We thus want to avoid any recriminations with regard to the previous position of the other parties on our motions. And we do not want to go into the details, which will be much better achieved in the committee.” Speakers from all parties spoke in favor of a change to the electoral law, so now it could not fail. It was completely impossible, declared Vollmar, for the matter to be kicked into the long grass again.

Thus Vollmar believed that he had brought all parties under one roof on the question of the electoral law. A little accommodation on the part of the bourgeois parties, leniency on our part – that’s how the potion is concocted. That is why the committee was so dear to him, where “positive work” could be carried out in silence. In short, he replaced agitation with conciliation. But this was precisely what the reactionaries needed. They feared mass agitation, they feared public discussion, and they were more than happy when the Social Democrats let themselves be pacified by a few phrases and renounced agitation at the moment of the most intense public interest. In the committee they certainly took their time. The acute interest of the public was lost within the general silence, which Social Democracy did very little to disturb. The matter fell into oblivion. In the “positive” work of drafting the bill, the special interests of the bourgeois parties and their binding enmity against Social Democracy were expressed with increasing clarity, and soon there was no doubt that the matter would be kicked into the long grass... for as long as possible! Thus this statesmanlike action came to an end. Vollmar is one experience richer. As in the previous cases, however, presumably the only conclusion he draws from this is that he was not clever or statesmanlike enough this time around.

Last but not least, the Millerand case[c] gave Vollmar an extremely favourable opportunity to draw the consequences of his position himself. Protected by the assumption that the matter was “practically” none of Germany’s business, he was allowed the luxury of letting his ideas develop freely. When, in Erfurt, [Wilhelm] Liebknecht presented “government socialism” as a consequence of Vollmar’s point of view, the latter turned indignantly against it. Since then, striding from failure to failure, he has learned to want modestly and to choose wisely. The ever increasing reduction of his next legislative demands put him in a position to hold Millerand’s petty and sham reforms in high esteem. On the other hand, the more minor the legislation at stake, the more important the will of the government becomes. The smaller that the political point of view of the parliamentarian becomes, the more the government increases in greatness in his eyes.

This is how Vollmar came to acquire a taste for socialist ministerialism. And fundamentally, how can anybody who wants to extend “an outstretched hand” to “the good will” of the government say no when this government asks him: “Come and be my good genius”? Now Vollmar and the others who defend Millerandism in Germany always use the excuse [Kantel] that the case is not relevant to Germany, that the conditions in Germany are different, that the political form is less liberal, that the government is less democratic, and so on. If we peel away the veneer then the following bare reason remains: the Millerand case does not apply here because the German government does not want a Socialist as minister. If it wanted it, then this would be a proof of liberalism, of democracy etc. So the government only needs to want a socialist minister!

The German ministerialists differ from the French only in that, while the latter accepted an invitation from the government, the latter place themselves at the government’s disposal long before it even remotely thinks of distributing ministerial portfolios to socialists. Such statesmanlike foresight!

I certainly do not wish to claim that Vollmar himself would accept a ministerial portfolio. He has too great a political past behind him to be able personally to put into practice the extreme consequences of his present position. But the point one politician has reached through the course of this life forms the starting point for others, and these then go much further in drawing the consequences of their position. After all, opportunism is inconsistency. And to the opportunist who seeks to console us by saying that he himself does not go that far in this or that practical case, we declare: “We cannot rely on your inconsistency, but we must reckon with the conclusions which others draw from your point of view!”

By a series of imperceptible changes, statesmanship within Social Democracy leads, as a result of its own inconsistency, to the conquest of political power by the proletariat being subverted by a political rubber man obtaining a ministerial portfolio; to the process of social-revolutionary development being subverted by parliamentary and perhaps even courtly intrigue!


Explanatory Notes

[a] Named after the pub in which he gave them. —BL

[b] Presumably those of 1894 and 1895. —BL

[c] The Millerand affair was a landmark controvery in the socialist movement that began in 1899, when the French socialist Alexandre Millerand accepted an invitation to serve as Minister of Commerce of the French government. Millerand’s entrance into the coalition cabinet of a capitalist government (scandalously, he served alongside the general who ordered the massacre of the Paris Commune) was made in direct defiance of the affirmed political strategy of the Second International, which held that socialists should remain a party of principled revolutionary opposition until a popular mandate made it possible to overturn the capitalist constitutional order and begin the transition to socialism. Millerand justified his move by claiming that extraordinary measures were needed to “defend the republic” against the proto-fascist forces that arose in the aftermath of the Dreyfus affair, but this view was condemned by a majority of the 1900 Paris Congress of the Second International, and Millerand himself was ultimately expelled from the French Socialist Party in 1904.

A critical account of the Millerand affair can be read in Rosa Luxemburg’s The Socialist Crisis in France. —MIA Editor’s Note

Last updated on 2 May 2023